Her work is cousin to the radical visions of the era, but she was ultimately working to reinvent, not simply destroy conventional wisdom.
An abridged and adapted version of the introduction to Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, published by Random House, October 11, 2016.
Fans of Jane Jacobs cherish a striking snapshot of the famed writer and urbanist, sitting in jail, awaiting booking. She is side by side with the writer Susan Sontag, who looks characteristically defiant. Jacobs appears calmer, and a bit world weary, as if she were barely enduring the regular idiocy of bureaucratic authority. They ended up there, along with more than 250 other demonstrators, after an antiwar protest at New York’s Whitehall draft induction center in December of 1967. The picture puts Jacobs at the heart of her times—it’s a snapshot from our collective idea of “the Sixties.” It’s all the more poignant when we know what is on the horizon: the Vietnam War would push her family to flee the United States for Canada a year later.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with its attack on conventional city planning orthodoxy, remains a great predictor of the era’s upheaval. It’s one of the first in that remarkable early Sixties run of seismic books—Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man—that would start to rearrange the minds of a whole generation. Like so many writers and thinkers in those years, she made her name skewering received wisdom. Near the end of the decade, when she found herself sitting with Sontag in central booking, her distress with New York and America had reached a tipping point. By 1970 she would find herself, in an essay called “The Real Problem of Cities,” endorsing battles against urban freeway construction with that trusty Sixties slogan, “Power to the People.”
But look again and the overall picture becomes murkier. Her intellectual work sits uneasily next to the radical thinkers of the moment like Sontag or Fanon or Baldwin and Marcuse or Norman Mailer or Shulamith Firestone or Michel Foucault. While others were exposing hierarchies and celebrating the seditious rush of excess, making strange the normal and questioning the given order of things, Jacobs’s celebrations of ordinary city life revealed the beauty and necessity of underlying norms. Her work is cousin to the radical visions of the era, but she was ultimately working to reinvent, not simply destroy conventional wisdom. She was not afraid to shatter settled thought, but she was set on fitting the shards back together, too, and with ideas some of the Sixties icons would have found altogether bourgeois.
As ill at ease as she appears in that photo, and in the company of Sontag and her ilk, thinking of her in that context does suggest how much more there is to Jane Jacobs than we customarily assume. If we look beyond Death and Life and take a cue from that uneasy pairing with Sontag we will find a thinker and writer who made the city her lens on all human life. If we consider her whole career—as we’ve been able to do in Vital Little Plans, a collection of her short works spanning the years from her earliest journalistic writings in the 1930s to her final speech just a few years before her death in 2006—we will discover that she worked to upend and rebuild the status quo surrounding not only cities, but economics, morals, and politics as well.
Over the years Jacobs has been called many things: an urban visionary, an anti-planner, an amateur economist, a geographer, a community activist, and a radical centrist. Each label captures some facet of her work, but in hemming her in with one category or another, each fails to encompass the range, variety, and provocative power of her ideas and pursuits, not to mention the way she was able to cross and blur the lines between disciplines, often outflanking one school of thought with another. Seeing Jacobs whole reveals her first and foremost as she herself hoped to be understood: as a thinker and writer with one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last century.
Always idiosyncratic and unorthodox, often surprising, often willing to risk being wrong if it meant reorienting stale conventional wisdom, Jacobs was perhaps our greatest theorist of the city not as a modern machine for living, but as a living human system, geared for solving its own problems. In her hands, cities become the medium of our collective public and economic life, the forum in which we can learn to harness change to resolve our shared problems and produce shared opportunity. Even in an era in which our society seems evermore stagnant, marked by both the fattening of the rich and the multiplying of the poor, reading Jacobs anew suggests that the way out lies in reinvigorating the creative, chaotic, improvisational economies of cities.
Most readers know Jacobs as the patron saint of stoop-sitters, as the slayer of freeways, as the scourge of Robert Moses and modernist city planning. These Jacobs lovers tend to cherish a series of scenes from the 1960s: Death and Life’s opening “attack on current city planning and rebuilding”; the “eyes on the street” that make cities safe; her four “generators of city diversity”: density, mixed uses, short blocks, and cheap old buildings; and of course the much beloved “sidewalk ballet.” One surprise in reading Jacobs as a whole, however, comes from the fact that early on in her career, as she rose to become an editor at Architectural Forum in the 1950s and an expert on contemporary architecture, she was a supporter of modern city rebuilding. She turned on those mid-century urbanist orthodoxies over the course of a year or more, as she discovered that the new highways, slum clearance projects, and “tower-in-the-park” complexes were uprooting old neighborhoods, scattering community life, deepening racial segregation, and trampling the rough and ready city she had come to love. It took her time and careful study to recognize the pleasures of everyday city life, to value the very “chaos” that modern planning looked to weed out of the cityscape.
Once she did, however, she was able to see the world anew. Many of the ideas Jacobs would cultivate in six other books and a host of essays and speeches began in one of Death and Life’s fundamental insights. What planners viewed as chaos she had come to see as a “complex and highly developed form of order.” The city, she surmised at the end of the book, was an always unfolding problem in handling “organized complexity.” Unlike simple two variable problems in physics or million variable problems in statistics, Jacobs saw the city as something more akin to an ecosystem with many moving parts, each with their own relationships to one another. This idea would become a touchstone of her later work, informing all her investigations of economic and social life, but understanding it fully ironically requires us to take a look backward as much as forward. Even if she never quite realized it, the idea had its roots in her earliest interests in the workings of cities at the micro-scale.
In fact, in her earliest writings, for Vogue and other magazines in the 1930s, she investigated city economic niches—the diamond trade and the flower market, for instance—where small market economies take their parts in a larger city symphony. Individual elements of her surroundings, she began to discover, were linked by larger processes hiding in plain sight. Here was the original spark for what would become both her trademark inductive method and her discovery of the city’s “organized complexity.” She followed anecdotes and observations up from the street, scale by scale, to discover the systems that make them go. Later she would call such bits and pieces of data “fractals,” renditions of a broader pattern in miniature. At the center of these stories are the relationships within particular industries, each florist and jewel merchant a node in the self-inventing, self-organizing network of the city. It’s a first glimpse of what, two decades later, in her celebrated essay “Downtown Is for People,” she’d call “the small specialized enterprise,” strung in a web of interdependencies with other diverse yet complementary undertakings.
These curiosities were brought to a head in the decades after the publication of Death and Life, when, like so many others, she wondered why cities and nations in the West were in trouble in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She had shown that modern planning schemes were misguided attempts to revive city life. But she felt something deeper, something more pervasive and odious, was afoot in these years. What had gone wrong? In true Jacobs fashion, she flipped the question on its head. The quandary was not why cities stagnated, but why they grew in the first place. Poverty has no causes, she believed; only prosperity has causes. Figure out how economic growth worked and the causes of the era’s problems would become clear.
In her essays and speeches from this time, and in The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) she argued that healthy cities are where “new work” springs up. Their dense fabric of interdependencies incubate economic expansion and innovation at large. Cultivating vibrant urban centers with small, diverse commercial and industrial enterprises is the linchpin of any meaningful strategy to combat decline.
But how to actually do this, on the ground, in existing cities? Little seemed to be working. Like many of the so-called “free market” advocates, those devotees of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman who rose to public prominence in the wake of the economic downturn of the 1970s, Jacobs believed in the self-organizing capacities of economic life. “Organized complexity” could produce order without orders from above. She was also dubious about the forms of aid on offer from various national or international schemes for economic development—the War on Poverty, World Bank lending programs, massive federal spending on the defense industry—these were just more prescriptive dictates unleashed from on high, sure to deaden urban economies. But unlike the “neoliberals” whose market fundamentalism has, until recently, dominated public life in the United States, she understood how these strategies tended to plow subsidies to already entrenched interests. In that sense, she saw a more active role for government as what she called a “third force” in the market, ready to protect young enterprises from established players and enable self-organizing networks of small producers to solve problems in new ways and overturn the socio-economic status quo.
Jacobs’ ideas went largely unheeded in the halls of power, but they led her to think more deeply about the classic tussle between commerce and government. Cities, she told an audience of Amsterdammers in 1984, lived or died by the “web of trust” between people in their everyday working lives. In order to preserve the open-ended possibility inherent in vital cities, societies had to recognize that this trust depended on a system of morality—she came to call it the “commercial moral syndrome”—and carefully delineate its relations with government and other watchdogs, which were guided by a different, opposed set of morals, the “guardian syndrome.” As she says in her 1992 book Systems of Survival, guardians value loyalty, tradition, and the right to use deception and force, while those who work under the “commercial syndrome” prize honesty, novelty, and collaboration with “strangers and aliens.” These syndromes, Jacobs argues, govern society at every level, from public policy to individual decision making. Not all businesspeople are honest, nor are all police officers loyal, but to violate these tenets—or worse yet, mix them in a “moral hybrid”—is to court disaster. What was lacking, she argued, was a proper vision of the “symbiotic” relations between the two “moral syndromes.” They had to remain separate but mutually beneficial. To her, that balancing act was the very “art of civilization” that we all negotiate in our everyday public lives.
As this lean and idiosyncratic ethical system might suggest, Jacobs offers little comfort to established political traditions, whether radical or conservative. She inspires and frustrates in equal measure. The left loves her community rabble rousing and her democratic spirit, but distrusts her faith in the private sector; the right thinks her a closeted ally, keen to promote privatization, but ignores her concessions to government. Unlike Sontag or many of her fellow ‘60s icons, her politics, like her urbanism, tended toward the pragmatic. She distrusted most visions of utopia. For her, the rallying cry of the 1968 Paris general strikes—“Beneath the paving stones, the beach!”—wasn’t likely to inspire. Beneath the city streets, she might have retorted, was nothing more than the dirt to which we will all return. Another world isn’t possible, certainly not if it’s some Eden of plenty and ease, reachable only by the utopian imagination or revolution. A better world is here already, all around us, in the here and now, in the streets themselves, waiting to be discovered and brought forth by all of us, not just a radical vanguard.
Despite her interest in the systems by which life organizes itself, she nevertheless kept systems of organized thought at arm’s length. As a result her work often feels sui generis, crafted from her various enthusiasms, her eye for details and processes, and her wide-ranging, unstructured reading in history, philosophy, economics, science, and literature. One thing, however, underpinned all her work: a basic faith that the market is not inherently exploitative. Inequality and economic crises are problems to be solved. They are bugs, not features, of capitalism.
In fact, reading Jacobs, some may feel that the last 300 years never quite happened. Where, some might ask, in her world of streets and sidewalks and plucky small firms, is the rise of capitalism and its twin products, great wealth and great inequality? Where is industrialization, with its steam engines and railroads and smokestacks plunging the day into sooty dark? Where is the rise and fall of slavery, the formation of the working class, the commodification of human labor, the power of race to immiserate whole classes of people due to the color of their skin? Where are finance and credit as instruments of accumulation or the political and legal fabrication of the corporation as an entity akin to a person? Where is the great consolidating sweep of modernity, rushing forward to forge an economy of great power and violence, an economy in which, by the time Jacobs was coming of age, industrial unions faced off against bosses over the conditions of work in the great assembly-line factories? And what about the world-altering forces that shaped the troubled cities she surveyed during her own career: deindustrialization and the mobility of capital, globalization and outsourcing?
Of course, many of these great processes were present in her work. Looking back at her books and short works, we can see that she had read Karl Marx and Adam Smith; she wrote about Henry Ford, the Dodge Brothers, General Motors and the rise of Detroit. She told the story of Eastman Kodak and Xerox in the making and unmaking of industrial Rochester; she analyzed the way new technologies could devastate whole regions and “make people redundant.” But these case studies never quite formed up on the page in any of the usual historical narratives of industrial growth or inequality in the modern age. In fact, Jacobs favored an ahistorical take on economies, looking for principles that stretched across all of human history. Many of her models, for instance, were drawn from antiquity or the middle ages. As sources of telling patterns she favored the digs at prehistoric Çatal Hüyük in what is today Turkey, or the story of ancient Rome, or the emergence of the medieval trading towns scattered along the rim of the emerging Atlantic world. And when it came to the big factory cities of the past two centuries she looked for inspiration in what she called the “unaverage clues” offered by places where small firms rather than giant assembly plants predominated: Birmingham not Manchester, New York not Detroit.
Jacobs tended to look at history the way she did a cityscape. She scouted around for promising examples of individual phenomena, situations in which city or economic life seemed to have been working, and then sought to understand the processes that organized these data into constructive systems. Large, amorphous categories, particularly those that carried with them guarantees about how people would behave, left her cold. Class, capitalism, supply and demand, the division of labor—in Jacobs’ view these have descriptive but not explanatory power. They are neither the driving forces of history, nor the fundamental conundrums of human life. And for her they risk shackling us to preformed narratives that restrict our ability to understand how actual people make and remake the market in everyday life.
At its core, one might say, Jacobs’ vision is one of markets without capitalism. It’s a theory not of historical development, but of always existing possibility. Markets are a source not only of alienation, but of exchange and contact, not simply building blocks of national productivity, but wellsprings of new ideas and self-making in concert with others. She rested her conception of human social life not on the struggle between workers and capitalists or the laws of supply and demand, but the struggle of humans to forge new work from old in a society that favors established interests. Small, young enterprises and their employees, particularly those engaged in unglamorous work producing necessary goods and services that solve everyday problems behind the scenes—industrial adhesives, for instance, or a new kind of window frame—need protection from corrosive concentrations of bureaucratic power, whether corporate or governmental, private or public. (She did make two significant exceptions to her disapproval of government service provision: healthcare and education.) But it’s not only the “innovators” we so fetishize today. All kinds of new local work drive economies. Creative imitation, not innovation, in her words, is the major driver of economic expansion. This, in a way, was as close as she came to utopia, her vision of “power to the people.” The just city and nation is a place where anyone’s creative impulses to “dicker” and improvise and reinvent themselves would be unleashed, where everyone would have the opportunity to make their own “vital little plans.”
By the end of her life, Jacobs had begun to think towards her own, unique account of the great transformations of the past several centuries. She even ventured some glimpses of possible futures. In one of her last speeches, “The End of the Plantation Age,” Jacobs begins developing a theory of human history, one she did not have the chance to complete. A companion piece to her last book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the speech finds her leavening the gloom of that book’s dire worries with the prospect of a profound, forward-looking transformation.
The “Plantation Age” of her title is a long era of human history from which she believes we are only now emerging. For centuries, she says, human effort was organized on the top-down “plantation” model. The term invokes the horrors of slavery and forced labor, of course, but for her it also includes industrialization, with its armies of workers enduring routinized, “scientifically managed” tasks. Unlike other thinkers, whether radical, centrist or conservative, she did not see the industrial revolution as a fundamental disjuncture in history. To her, the factory was little more than a machine-made plantation, as much an icon of the age as urban renewal, mass suburbs, or the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This era may have produced great wealth—culminating in the relatively shared prosperity of the mid-twentieth century boom—but for her it was always a “monoculture” inevitably tending towards stagnation and waste. The plantation mentality used economies of scale and planned results to turn workers into little more than peons—each a potential “trader” betrayed and wasted. It was a form of production for production’s sake that eclipsed the far more vibrant worlds of everyday innovation found in cities enlivened by exchange, with their small enterprises, diverse peoples, and mixtures of face-to-face uses.
But now, she says, that era might be receding. What’s on the horizon? Jacobs never relished the role of prophet, but at the end of her life she hazarded two related but opposite guesses. One path was what she called, in Dark Age Ahead, “cultural collapse.” Jacobs found evidence of imminent decline in the erosion of family, community, science, education, governance, and professional integrity in North America. She even identified the danger of the housing bubble, just as it was inflating in the early years of the millennium. More than a decade later it’s hard not to remain dismayed. In a time of renewed inequality and recalcitrant structural racism, with lead staining the water of Flint, Michigan, the grim and ongoing exposure of police brutality, and the craven exploits of financial capitalism fresh in so many people’s minds, the “symbiosis” between “guardians” and “traders” Jacobs hoped for appears considerably out of whack. The guardians are asleep, inept, vicious, or on the take; the traders simply gone feral.
More orthodox thinkers, on the left or right, might consider these outcomes endemic to their usual targets: capitalism or big government or privatization or the welfare state. Jacobs, however, offered a different story, a possible path out of the morass. In that last speech she spied signs of not a dark age coming, but an “age of human capital.” Elsewhere, in notes for the book she hoped to write—tentatively titled “A Short Biography of the Human Race”—she called it the “second creative age.” Those notes suggest that racism and other plantation age “concepts of industrial, spatial, and political order” linger as “hangovers” or “anachronisms.” But she also foresaw an emerging possibility that humans might find a way to return, by way of their creative impulses, to an era of revivified people power, when a newfound symbiosis between traders and guardians would push cities back into the business of producing “new work.”
Jacobs never finished her own new work, and she was, until the end, quite mindful of the possibility that any innovative tendencies could be betrayed by the lure of plantation-style bigness. It’s fitting, though, that in her final speech she would not accept that the future was foreclosed. Her radical pragmatism, in this as in all things, led her to look for the ways people might live in the flow of their own time and, in making do with what they have, also make their world anew.
Whatever one thinks of her diagnoses and prognostications—and they certainly rely on a faith in the essential goodness and industriousness of people that leave her sounding naïve at times— even longtime followers of Jacobs can find in the arc of her whole career fresh problem-solving inspiration. Beset as we are by any number of trials—whether it’s the threat of climate change, the dovetailing of globalization and automation, the twin perils of terrorism and nationalism, persistent poverty and inequality, or just misguided urban projects and the creep of gentrification—it is galvanizing to see Jacobs whole for the first time, and to discover her bracing, plainspoken talent for revealing the interwoven problems of cities, economies, and morals.